Nurturing the Heart of a Child.
I'm a mom, new grandmother (!), child development specialist, and served as University Professor, Children's Pastor, teacher, and consultant. As founder of the Institute for Childhood Education, we're helping parents, teachers, & child care facilities create nurturing environments.
Child development is amazing, and a glimpse into the Mind of our Creator. I'm here to help you nurture your children, grandchildren, and the kids you serve in ministry. Read more →
happy new mom

I was listening to a talk show host interview a mom about her new book on parenting. This mom has three grown children, one of whom was recently killed in Afghanistan serving as a Navy Seal. She attributed the success of her children to the fact that she raised them to be “strong and independent.” I was not surprised by her comment. When I ask parents what they want their children to look like by the time they enter early adulthood independence is usually at the top of the list.

But I would argue that the belief that strength comes from “independence” is an illusion. Strength comes from connection. A member of any special forces unit would tell you that their strength comes from the fierce loyalty and strong connections that they have to one another, to themselves and to their country. There is a camaraderie among these men and women who share similar goals and values. They have the shared experience of enduring some of the most rigorous training in the world and they rely on each other for their very survival.

Not only are they connected as a team but these elite individuals are connected to themselves. They know who they are and are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. They have no illusions as to the limits of their strength. To do so would be detrimental to their own survival and that of their unit. And they are willing to lay their life down for our country because of a sense of connection to something bigger than themselves and the values that our country holds.

So it is with all of us. Our strength comes in connection—not independence. In fact, we could argue that the root of both physical and mental illness is disconnection in the body and mind. Our primary goal as a parent is to grow strong connections with our children that will endure the ups and downs of childhood and adolescence. Strong and resilient children are those who are connected to themselves, family, God and the world around them.

A key ingredient in building strong connections is something very simple yet so powerful–eye contact. This past week I was with a teacher who shared with me the change that came about in her classroom when she determined to focus on eye contact. She made a list of all the children in her room and kept a tally throughout the day as to how many times she made eye contact with each boy and girl. She realized that there were some with whom she made no eye contact at all. She set out to change that. She purposefully made it a point to look each child in the eye throughout the day and she reported that the entire dynamic of her classroom began to change. Children began to talk more. Behavior challenges lessened. And an increased sense of calm pervaded the room.

Why is eye contact so important? It is often said that the eyes are the window of the soul. Our children see reflected in our eyes how we feel about them. When I pause the TV, look up from my phone or stop what I’m doing and look my child in the eye I give him the gift of presence. This sends the message that “you are a priority…you are more important than my phone, my own pleasure or this task that I’m doing at the moment.”
When my child asks to spend the night at a friend’s house and I never look up from what I’m doing, I communicate a sense of indifference. You don’t really matter and I’m not really concerned with what you do. When I pick my child up at the end of the day from the childcare center and never put my phone down to greet and hug them, I communicate to my child that your absence is meaningless to me and our reunion brings me no joy.

Relationships and strong connections are forged in small moments throughout the day. In these seemingly ordinary interactions we are sending powerful messages to our children about who they are and their place in our lives. Pre-occupation is the enemy of connection. Determine to put the phone down, pause the TV, close the computer and look your child in the eye. Eat dinner together, look each other in the eye and talk about your day. Look your child or your teenager in the eye when you send them off to school with the memory of an affectionate good bye. Look your kids in the eye when you say, “Good night” and send them off to bed with the gift of presence. These small moments grow strong connections that will endure the temper tantrums of toddlerhood, the insecurities of childhood and the angst of the teenaged years.

In Psalm 17:8 the Psalmist asks God to keep him as “the apple of your eye.” Make eye contact and connect with your child. Show him that he is the apple of your eye.

School is out!!!  I am enjoying seeing kids riding their bikes around the neighborhood—a site that is becoming increasingly rare.    I remember when my own kids were in school and summer rolled around.  It was always interesting to hear the different reactions to this annual reprieve from the routine of school, homework, report cards and seemingly endless papers to fill out.  Some moms welcomed the summer with enthusiasm and anticipation, commenting, “I love having the kids around.”   For others, it seemed to strike fear and dread in their hearts as they commented, “What in the world am I going to do with them all summer?”

I was one of those moms who loved summer.  I see it as a time for children to pursue things that are of interest to them in a more in-depth way because of the more relaxed time schedule.  It’s also an opportunity to expose them to new experiences and interests that might strike a cord and develop into a hobby or passion.

The temptation is often for parents to think that they have to be the entertainment committee and find a way to fill every waking moment with something “productive.”  I believe that we need to create 001_NETmoments of “planful boredom.”   We would purposefully leave unscheduled time when there is “nothing to do.”  I remember one summer when money was tight.  There would be no vacation.  We had a garage sale at the beginning the summer and raised $300.00.  We used that money to buy what I call “open-ended” materials—things that can be used in a myriad of ways.  We bought fabric, buttons, paint, candle and soap making materials and the like.  One daughter learned to sew that summer, making her first dress.  The other daughter spent much time in the kitchen making concoctions that she nuked in the microwave that turned into useful products.  More than once I walked into their rooms and found them relaxing with cucumbers on their eyelids and fruit and vegetable mixtures on their face to supposedly beautify.

As I look back on this time it was probably one of the most creative summers we had as a family.  Less is often more.  I once met a man at a conference who commented that he was given the gift of poverty.  I questioned why he viewed it as a gift.  He went on to explain that he grew up in a house that had a dirt floor, no running water or electricity.  “It forced me to be resourceful,” he said.  A stick and a hedge apple became a bat and ball.  He invented games that he played with his large family of brothers and sisters.  This man grew up to be a doctor and he attributed his “impoverished” upbringing as the key to his success.

When my kids came to me and said, “I’m bored…there is nothing to do!”  I would secretly smile inside.  My standard comeback was, “I have full 002_BLOCKS-GRASSconfidence that you are capable of finding something satisfying to do.”  I would hear the inevitable groan and frustrated sigh.  But shortly I would find them busily engaged in their next adventure. The temptation these days is to take the course of least resistance and let kids veg out in front of a screen.  It demands nothing of adults and it sets us free to do our own thing.  I’m not saying that school-aged kids and teens should never have screen time but it should never be used as an easy way out.

If we are going to create “planful boredom” we need to make sure we set the stage with materials and opportunities that invite children to try them out and explore.  Not many of us live in the country 03_BOXES or on a farm and have the playground of the natural world at our disposal.   But there are plenty of things that we have around the house as well as a few inexpensive or free items that we can add to beckon children to create and invent.   Check out the few ideas listed below and if you would like more resources, CLICK HERE for a packet of materials that are chock full of ideas for inexpensive and engaging activities for kids to do.  Here’s to a fun and creative summer!!

1.  Get an assortment of different sized boxes.  Hook them together with tape and create a tunnel.  Kids can make pictures of things that live underground and tape them inside.  Or, use markers or paint to create buildings that form a city.  Some enjoy fastening boxes together to make a doll house.

2.  Look on-line or go to the library and get information to make origami designs.  Use just about any kind of paper—old magazines, computer paper, newspaper etc.

3.  Find a game that the entire family enjoys and have a tournament that lasts throughout the summer.

4.  Make some kind of treats for the neighbors and have the kids deliver them.

5.  Make an insect collection and learn about them on the internet or get books from the library.  T-pins or straight pins and a piece of Styrofoam or heavy cardboard make a great way to collect and display.


2016 was an interesting year to say the least.  Never before do I remember experiencing such a gamut of emotion as I read the headlines and watched the media.  The political scene brought a mixture of amusement and disgust.  At times it was like watching children in a schoolyard brawl.  I was horrified by the acts of racial violence, terrorism and reports of child abuse and neglect. 2017 has been ushered in with protests and marches in the streets, evidence of a deeply divided nation that has seemingly lost our way.


It is tempting to look out at the chaos of the world and respond with fear and wringing of hands for the future of our children and grandchildren.   But this will serve no purpose.  The current cultural landscape has convinced me more that ever that we need to focus our efforts on raising well-nurtured, “gritty” children.


“Well nurtured” and “gritty” used together may seem a little contradictory.  But in fact, it is not.  I sometimes get push back from dads who think that a “well nurtured” child is a mamby pamby mama’s boy who is scared of his own shadow.   Nothing could be further from the truth.  Well-nurtured children grow up to be strong, “gritty” adults who are confident in who they are and their place in the world.  They are aware of an “inner life” and value system that guides their thinking and behavior.  Gritty individuals are not easily tossed about by the latest trends and fads.  They live with purpose and are committed to making a positive contribution to the world and to the wellbeing of others.


What does it mean to “nurture” a child?  It means that we meet their developmental needs at optimum time frames as they grow and mature.  In the course of development there are certain experiences and interactions that children need at different “sensitive periods” in order for their body, mind, soul and spirit to grow and mature in healthy ways.   The problem is that we live in a culture that is essentially child illiterate and few have a clue as to what is meant by “developmental needs.” In the absence of knowledge we make assumptions and interpret their needs in light of our own.


For example, we need babies who sleep through the night when they are only weeks old so that mom and dad can rest.  We need infants and toddlers that can endure 40-50 hours a week in childcare.  We need children to adjust to multiple living arrangements to accommodate custody agreements of divorced parents.  We buy into the myth of quality over quantity and expect our children to interact with us on our terms and don’t bother us when we are busy.   We need children to sit still and bubble in answers to standardized tests in the name of school improvement.  We need perfect children to assuage our own self-doubt and reassure us that we are good parents.


Rarely are decisions made regarding the well being of children that are truly informed by developmental needs.  Educators and childcare providers can care for and teach children without any formal training in child development.  Judges, lawyers and caseworkers make life-changing decisions about the placement of children with little understanding of their attachment needs.  Legislators determine educational standards and expectations for children with no understanding of how children learn.


Could it be that we don’t really want to know?  To know something about the developmental needs of children means we have a moral obligation to do what is best for them and not cater to our own convenience, personal or political agenda, or do what is easy or most cost effective.


But if we are to raise gritty children we need to know in order to parent with intention and purpose.  So stay tuned for coming weeks as we take a look at the fascinating world of child development.